Spanish explorers, Comanche, Tonkawa and Waco Indians, a German prince and a host of early settlers preceded my settling near these life-giving waters.
By Jan Reid
The most jubilant Comal Spring gushes from the base of a limestone cliff in New Braunfels, at the juncture of the city-owned Panther Canyon Nature Trail and a heavily traveled street, California Boulevard. The Comal Springs and the short aquamarine river they form are tightly enclosed by urbanity, though most folks in New Braunfels still think of their community as a small town. A Landa Park sign warns you not to wade or dabble, but you can stand on a sidewalk about 20 feet from this source of Texas’ largest springs.
On a chilly morning I pause there a long while, enjoying the birdsongs and burbling ruckus of the spring. Three mallards play in the current, paddling in tight circles, ducking their heads in the water, then giving them a vigorous shake. They behave like they wish they could swim back into the darkness of the aquifer, but the force of its ancient outrush holds them back.
Though remains of middens, flint-working sites, and rock shelters abound, scientists have not pinpointed exactly when people first gathered at these springs. In 1929, ditch diggers found eight indigenous skeletons buried nearby. A local avocational archaeologist proclaimed that they were at least 1,500 years old and that one woman had “absolutely no forehead” and was more than 6 feet tall. That’s a fairly commanding prospect. Apart from being an oasis for humans, the springs provide critical habitat for animal species that are in danger of extinction. The Comal Springs are the locale’s heart and soul.
The Edwards Aquifer replenishes itself by the simple expedient of holes in surface limestone. Rainwater pours through the cretaceous rock, then gravity pulls it west to east, then northeast. Springs abound in the Balcones Canyonlands because fissures in its geological fault let the pressured water out. Pollution of the aquifer and its springs is continually threatened by leaking septic and gasoline tanks and runoff of agricultural poisons and the foul gruel that coats urban concrete. But high coliform counts are less common in Comal Springs than in a famous relative, Barton Springs, which gets its water from limestone in Austin’s urban sprawl. The Comal Springs’ recharge zone extends far to the west — near Hondo, Sabinal, Uvalde, Brackettville. It’s lightly populated ranching country.
But the Comal Springs’ break in water quality is offset by heavy demand on its quantity. Between the springs and their recharge features are the city of San Antonio, which relies on the Edwards Aquifer for all its drinking water, and farmers who irrigate their fields by pumping from artesian wells. The system of springs flowing from the aquifer is often likened to a bucketful of holes. As the water in the bucket dips, the number of holes spouting rivulets falls off, too.
The Comal Springs emerge fairly high in the bedrock, at an elevation of 623 feet. They are known to have dried up just once, for 144 days in 1956. The ubiquitous Drought of Record lasted seven years and turned 90 percent of Texas into a disaster area. Glenn Longley, a Southwest Texas State University biologist and authority on the Edwards Aquifer, warns flatly: “If we let the Comal Springs dry up, we are down the road to an ecological disaster.”
In the Trans-Pecos, the Comanche Springs were once a storied and glorious oasis, too. Heedless and selfish pumping by Texans left Fort Stockton with nothing but a grim hole in the ground today. You don’t have to range that far to find the precedent for New Braunfels. Up Panther Canyon, a short distance from where I stand is a pile of rocks that once issued a vital Comal Spring. That spring dried up in the 1950s, and it’s never come back.
Why should I care that the Comal Springs always flow? Let me begin with how I came to them. I grew up in North Texas, where all the recreational water in my life either was chlorinated or muddied shades of pink or brown. I zoomed down the rapid of a culvert of an irrigation ditch and learned to water ski in lakes where the bough of a partially submerged mesquite could strike like the horn of a rhino if you weren’t careful. Then I finished college and got a reporting job in New Braunfels. I lived in a Spartan duplex on the edge of a neighborhood called the Estates. At the end of my first day there I went for a walk past small stylish homes then around the golf course and back around Landa Park. Gaping at the emerald water and the cliff rising above live oaks bearded with Spanish moss, I thought: This is the best place in Texas I’ve ever seen.
My chance residence in the Estates enabled me to swim in a pool restricted by a legal entity called the Comal Water Recreation District 1. I didn’t feel guilty about my privilege; there are large public pools in Landa Park. I snorkeled for the first time and adjusted to the initial shock of jumping in that water, a constant 72 to 74 degrees. On winter days steam wisped off the water’s surface. I jumped in once and surfaced laughing; now it felt like a lukewarm bath. Eventually I had to climb out, though, and I thought I was going to die of exposure when the cold air hit me and I raced shivering to my car. Best were the summer days when friends and I would take to the Comal River, where it flows out of the park, and drift downstream in inner tubes, young faces raised to the blazing sun.
All I knew then about the Comal Springs’ ecology was the feast before my eyes. In that I was little different from others drawn there. Spanish and French explorers first wrote about it in journals four centuries ago; in 1691, one chronicler described a huge encampment of Indians around the springs — some, he said, came from as far away as present-day New Mexico and Parral, Chihuahua. In 1756 the Spaniards established a mission at the springs called La Señora de Guadalupe. Just two years later they were gone, chased off by ferocious Comanches.
Comal in Spanish means “basin,” referring to the valley and hills, but for many years the 3.25-mile river was called the Little Guadalupe, and the springs Las Fontanas, “the fountains.” The springs were a welcome stop for travelers on El Camino Real. Then in 1845, a German prince, Karl Solms, bought 525 acres around the springs for $1,111. That would be an astounding bargain in today’s market, but the price in that economy and frontier is a measure of how cherished the springs were.
The German immigrants landed at Indianola and learned that all the promised mule teamsters were off hauling freight in the Mexican War. They had to walk to the Balcones Escarpment, and dozens of them died from cholera and other ills. Trying to keep their spirits up, they danced at night to a clarinet played by an overworked gravedigger. Their arrival in the Comal basin in early May that year was a joyous occasion, but a schoolteacher named Herman Seele wrote: “In that night a Texas electrical rainstorm broke up a cannibalistic orgy by Tonkawa Indians ... at which they had feasted on boiled and fried flesh of one of their enemies, a warrior, of the Waco Indians. The next morning a number of Tonkawa squaws on their way from the feast, in grinning gesture told us how delicious the flesh tasted and hoped by eating of it their own offspring would be as brave as the Waco warrior had been.”
The Germans who saw New Braunfels grow up around the Comal Springs included a number of distinguished frontier naturalists, among them a geologist and wildflower enthusiast named Ferdinand von Roemer. He witnessed the Indian-camp ceremony in which the Germans negotiated a truce with the Comanches. They were the only Texas settlers who made a lasting peace with that implacable tribe.
Scientists have documented about 280 major springs in Texas at the time of its settlement; about 60 of those have since dried up. The pioneer of that research was another geologist, Gunnar Brune, who worked for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and the Texas Water Development Board. Brune’s health and that of his wife prevented him from visiting every county and finishing his self-published 1981 magnum opus, Springs of Texas (reprinted this spring by Texas A&M University Press). Claims often are heard that the Comal Springs are the largest in the country. Not so, according to the master. Brune subscribed to a study that ranked them eighth in the nation. Still, by far, they are the most plenteous in Texas and the Southwest.
Brune was an impassioned but melancholy sort. “This writer believes,” he said in his introduction, “that the human race is committing suicide, that man cannot control his destiny, and that within 500 years he will be extinct, carrying with him most other life forms on earth.” Nothing seems to have disheartened him more than the loss of the Comanche Springs and many others in Texas. He wrote about overgrazing and ruinous oilfield brine, about a wasteful Lunatic Asylum Well in Austin that threw a geyser 35 feet in the air. Describing the desertification of Texas, he wrote about invasive mesquites that can root down 150 feet to reach an aquifer, about exotic salt cedar, or tamarisk, which infests streams from the Rio Grande to the Canadian, able to exist even on contaminated water. He wrote about irrigation well-pumpers “mining and using up groundwater, some of which should be left for their children and grandchildren. But no one cares ...”
Plenty of Texans cared, of course, especially in a dry spell. But any objections were stifled by an almost holy writ called the Rule of Capture. Nineteenth-century English and U.S. case law held that property owners had absolute right to water beneath their land. If capturing one’s groundwater sucked neighbors dry, that was just too bad. By the end of the 20th century, the Rule of Capture held sway in just six states, including Texas. The firmament was shaken first here by the Drought of Record. A stretch of the Guadalupe River became a dry stream, then the Comal Springs dried up. Dependent on that flow were Seguin, Gonzales and Victoria, along with rice farms and chemical plants and rich ecosystems in the San Antonio Bay and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. In droughts the Comal and San Marcos springs supply up to 80 percent of the fresh water flowing from the Guadalupe’s mouth.
The loss of that water was made actionable by Richard Nixon’s signature on the Endangered Species Act in 1972. The Comal and San Marcos springs provide known habitat for nine rare and threatened species. While knowledge of that was growing, San Antonio declined opportunities to supplement its artesian wells with water from lakes. In 1991 the Living Waters Ltd. Catfish Farm began to pump water every day at a rate that equaled one-fourth of San Antonio’s consumption. The “catfish farmer” triggered howls of outrage and became a public metaphor for absurd abuse of the Rule of Capture.
Against that backdrop, the late Lucius D. Bunton III, federal district judge, presided in his Midland courtroom over a complex 1991 lawsuit that officially pitted the Sierra Club against U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. But it also featured a University of Texas–Austin zoology professor, downstream consumers of Guadalupe River water, the city of San Antonio, pump-well irrigators and municipal governments of New Braunfels and San Marcos, representing tourism industries that relied on water recreation and the springs. One can debate the merits of a federal law that makes top priority the survival of tiny fish and blind beetles and salamanders — and hosts of Texans fear and loathe the Endangered Species Act — but the issue was a hammer that echoed as loudly as the gavel in Bunton’s hand. The judge effectively ruled that the use of the Edwards Aquifer must be limited when Comal Springs threatens to dry up and bring closer the extinction of its species. (The San Marcos Springs, which come out of the limestone 48 feet lower in elevation, are then imperiled.)
In Austin, the late Bob Bullock, lieutenant governor, growled repeatedly that the state had been jawing about and passing off the same water problems since he was a freshman legislator in 1957. Senate Bill 1 and subsequent state legislation signaled Bullock‘s top priority and hopes for his legacy as his retirement neared. Its features included the establishment of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. The Comal Springs’ normal flow is approximately 300 cubic feet per second (cfs); its fragile species are considered jeopardized when the flow falls to 150 cfs. In September 2000, the Edwards Aquifer Authority actually imposed restrictions on use of sprinklers when that jeopardy level was reached.
Tom Arsuffi, an aquatic ecologist at Southwest Texas State University and expert witness for the Sierra Club in the suit before Bunton, remains hopeful. “If we can just cross our fingers and hang on five or 10 years,” he says, ”the Comal Springs might be all right. Conservation measures have been applied. San Antonio has gotten the point and started looking for other sources of drinking water. But the most significant part is that, in the Edwards Aquifer, the Rule of Capture no longer applies.”
Stuart Henry, an Austin lawyer on the team who represented the plaintiffs in the 1991 lawsuit, does not celebrate yet. “In a real repeat of the Drought of Record, I’m not at all confident the trigger levels and management plans will successfully protect the species — in spite of federal law that says they have to.” Alive and well before other federal judges is a countersuit by powerful San Antonio lawyers and clients who argue the Edwards Aquifer is an intrastate issue, so the Endangered Species Act has no legal bearing.
This year, Men’s Journal, a magazine for outdoors enthusiasts, nominated New Braunfels as the sixth most agreeable place to live in the country. Access to water sports was the aspect of the quality of life that most set the town apart. New Braunfels owes its existence to Comal Springs. But even in years of good rain, their flow plummets through early July, when most irrigation is completed; they start to regain force, then sharply ebb again when dry, hot August increases the demands on San Antonio’s artesian wells. Central Texans have endured fierce dry spells as recently as the 1990s, but none have approached the Drought of Record. The time it never rained, as Elmer Kelton phrased it in his fine novel about that period, ended with a characteristic slam-bang of Texas weather — a 1957 hurricane that camped inland, assaulting thousands of people with catastrophic flash floods.
Yet those wild extremes of weather were no anomaly. What happens when it never rains again? Will Texans really have the conviction to keep the Comal’s oasis waters flowing? Climatological patterns indicate that a repetition of that drought can be expected in Texas every 50 to 80 years. One day we’ll have to answer those hard questions about will and water. It’s just a matter of time.